- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Tearful and wearing mourning black, tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians joined Tuesday for a funeral Mass for their patriarch, Pope ShenoudaIII, led by senior clerics at the main cathedral in Cairo.

St. Mark’s Cathedral was packed full with local clerics, visiting clergymen and dignitaries as deacons chanted somber hymns and bearded, black-clad priests and monks recited prayers and dispensed incense smoke from censers. Shenouda’s body lay in a white casket in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, complete with an ornate golden crown.

Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the Mass came to a close.

Clerics, deacons and laypeople gathered around the casket, kissing it, standing in silence or bowing in respect.

Carrying portraits of Shenouda and crosses, tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the Mass outside the cathedral. Many wept, wiping tears off their faces as the melancholic tunes of the hymns reached them through loudspeakers.

Scores of military police were deployed to maintain security outside the cathedral, with the normally congested traffic of central Cairo backed up for hours because of the crowds. The cathedral is located on a main downtown artery.

“I know he is now in a better place, but it is difficult now he’s gone. We miss you,” said a grief-stricken Marianne Saad as she stood in the crowd outside the cathedral.

“After God, he was our only protector,” lamented another young woman in the crowd.

“We will miss him, but he will always be in our hearts,” said a young Christian man, Hani Suleiman.

Shenouda died on Saturday at age 88 after spending 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. Most of Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox Copts.

After the Mass, Shenouda’s body was ferried to a military airport east of Cairo, from which it was to be flown later on Tuesday to the desert St. Bishoy Monastery northwest of the capital, where he will buried.

The monastery, which dates back to the fourth century, was a favorite of Shenouda’s. He spent more than three years of exile there after he was banished in 1981 by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who claimed the patriarch was fomenting sectarian strife. Sadat’s successor, longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, released the pope in 1985.

Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning on Tuesday.

A successor to Pope Shenouda has yet to be found, and it could take months before the complex process is completed.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians long have complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority. The political ascent of Islamists since the ouster of MR. Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.

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